Everything goes around in cycles and, for Disney, this has manifested itself in the form of ‘untold stories’ based on supporting characters or previously misunderstood villains. After the unprecedented success of Frozen, the idea of a summer blockbuster focusing on Sleeping Beauty’s enigmatic bad gal Maleficent didn’t seem like such a crazy idea and, with news that it would be Angelina Jolie donning the horns and black cape, Maleficent suddenly became one of the more anticipated films of the summer season.
The relatively recent trend for darker interpretations of family-friendly properties has been tricky to get right, what with the difficulty of balancing more complex material with nothing more commercially troubling than a 12A classification, and stories focusing on villainous characters make that process even harder. Maleficent, then, with or without the fresh memory of Frozen proving that it can be done, is a confused movie. It never quite decides what it wants to be, and sadly falls just shy of its considerable potential.
Production designer and first-time director Robert Stromberg (Alice In Wonderland, Oz The Great And Powerful) is at the helm and, unsurprisingly given his credits, the film looks absolutely gorgeous. From Jolie’s costume to the sweeping shots of the moors, the film is a visual treat. But, as we know from countless films including Snow White And The Huntsman – another fairytale retelling made in the same vein – style means very little without some substance to back it up, and this is where Maleficent falls down slightly.
Claiming to flesh out the backstory of a character that has become iconic despite a limited screen time and a complete lack of origin story, there was always the danger that, sans mystery, Maleficent could lose what made the character special in the first place. Here, we’re introduced to the titular character as a fairy protecting her land from humans and, as she falls for the ambitious Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and is subsequently betrayed, we witness her transformation from protector to that powerful, iconic character crafted way back in 1959.
The biggest problem is tone, which veers from family-friendly comedy and lightness to dark revenge fantasy and, periodically, a feminist fairytale in the same vein as many recent efforts such as Tim Burton’s Alice, Huntsman and, again, Frozen. There’s a welcome rejection of the typical true love narrative popularised by the animated movies of Sleeping Beauty’s era, which freshens things up a little, but, despite some interesting thematic detours, the resolution of the film still feels disappointingly predictable.
The sorrow-tinged version of the movie teased in that Lana Del Ray track and its accompanying teaser doesn’t appear often enough, and there’s also an inconsistency in the portrayal of Maleficent herself. Her motivations are murky, with the cackling, ruthless villainess that scared so many of our younger selves only appearing in one re-adapted scene and subsequently absent from the rest of the film. The performance isn’t the problem, with Jolie getting the sadness and longing of the character across, but the emotional arc never really meshes with her established quirks and sense of menace.
Supporting her, Elle Fanning’s Aurora isn’t given enough to do to make much of an impact and Sam Riley’s animal sidekick is nothing more than someone for Maleficent to bounce off of, but Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan turns out to be one of the most interesting parts of the film. The top-notch casting for this film pays off in that, despite certain characters never really being fleshed out as much as we’d like them to, pretty much all of the performances are fantastic. Jolie is obviously the main attraction but, due to a smattering of genuinely powerful moments, she’s not necessarily the only thing you’ll remember.
Maleficent is in no way a failure, and it competently achieves what it set out to do with the titular character, but its unevenness renders the resulting movie something that both adults and children could find difficult to love. The considerable darkness and adult themes might be a little too much for little‘uns, for example, but then the jarring moments of comedy are often so disruptive as to wreck an entire scene, and a grown-up audience might also find it a frustrating watch.
Thanks to Jolie’s central performance and its willingness to go to some troubling places, however, Maleficent is still a worthwhile stab at a very different kind of fairytale.
Maleficent is out in UK cinemas now.
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